Holi: The festival of colors
Second in its exuberance only to Deepavali, Holi is another of the nation-wide celebrations of particular significance in India. Occurring over two days, it begins on Phalgun Purnima, the full moon in early March. In 2011 the festival occurs on March 19th …
On the first night, an effigy of the demon Holika is burnt in a huge bonfire. People spend the second day throwing coloured powder and water at each other.
As with many festivals in India, it is connected to the agricultural season, marking the beginning of the harvesting of the summer crop. As is also the case with most other holidays, the rituals of this celebration are related to various historical episodes.
The Burning of Holika
In Indian legend, after a long period of penance the king of the demons, Hiranyakashipu, was granted a boon by Brahma, which virtually ensured his invincibility. As a result, he grew arrogant and desired for himself dominion over all the Heavens and Earth.
To his frustration, however, his very own son, Prahlada, remained steadfastly devoted to God. In his attempt to finally get rid of this aggravation, Hiranyakashipu ordered Prahlada to sit in a pyre on the lap of his aunt Holika, a demon herself who had the power to withstand the flames. Yet, in the end, Prahlada’s devotion to God kept him safe. He walked unscathed from the ashes, while the demoness was consumed by the flames.
This festival takes its name from this legend, and the re-enactment of the burning of Holika is symbolic of the victory of good over evil, and the ultimate power of the path of righteousness and devotion to God to save mankind.
A Celebration of Love
Holi is a also a celebration of the great love between Krishna and Radha. It is told that Krishna complained one day to his mother about the contrast between his dark skin and the fairness of his consort Radha. Thus, his mother applied colour to Radha’s face, a gesture that is mimicked in the modern day revelry of this festival.
The story of Kamadeva (Cupid), the god of love, is also remembered during this time. In order to induce Lord Shiva to wed Parvati, Kama stirred him from his deep meditation by shooting an arrow at his heel. When Shiva opened his third eye, the gaze was so powerful that it reduced Kama to ashes. For the sake of Kama’s wife, Shiva restored him – not physically, but as a mental image of true, everlasting love for her.
Thus, Holi also represents the ushering in of the spring season of love; and just as Krishna frolicked innocently with the merry milkmaids (Gopis) of Brindavan, the youth spend this day flirting and misbehaving in the streets.
In Modern Times
As with many of the traditional festivals in India, this celebration has seen a marked degree of degradation and perversion in modern times. What, in times of old, was a day for joyful, child-like amusement, a shedding of inhibitions, and an extending of the hand of peace to one and all, has now often become a scene of “childish” antics and sometimes crude behaviour by unrestrained youths. It has also become a time for indulging in intoxicating food, drinks and other noxious substances.
On top of this foolishness, the natural ingredients used to make the dyes for the powders have been replaced with chemical substances, many of which have been found to be toxic with potentially severe health impacts.
The Higher Aspects
Apart from their outward amusements, Hindu festivals all have deep and profound significance for the spiritual life. If properly observed, these occasions all help to cleanse the mind, and strengthen the spirit. As Swami Sivananda put it,
“They wean man away from sensual pleasures and take him gradually to the spiritual path and divine communion.”
This festival is a time to give thanks to nature for her continued abundance, and also a time to reflect upon the interconnectedness of man and nature. The mutual anointing with coloured water is a sacred cleansing of the impurities of our worldly attitudes and a washing away of past differences. It is a humble acknowledgement between men and women of the unity and equality that we all share.
Holi, then, is an opportunity to let bygones be bygones and to begin the year anew with feelings of love, compassion and co-operation.
The sacrificial bonfire represents the burning of our lust, greed and vanity, and is also a symbolic representation that it is only in the fire of devotion to the “highest” that we can destroy the demon of our worldly ego.
Holi is a reminder to always keep the flame of this truth and higher consciousness burning bright within our hearts and minds.